January 24th, 2007

What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?

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Wikipedia is starting to feel awfully Google-like in the amount of power it wields online. If you publish any original information or insight, and it gets incorporated into Wikipedia, even if you are properly cited in Wikipedia, based on the new “no follow” policy for such external links, Wikipedia will likely rank much higher than you in search engines for that information and be the destination for most searchers (Nick Carr rounds up some of the best responses to this issue).

And, it now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or slanted on a topic that is of substantive importance to your business, you’re pretty much screwed. If your employees try to change the information directly, you’ll get slapped — perhaps not technically, but it’s clear that companies are not exactly welcomed with open arms in the discussion areas of articles. And if, like Microsoft, you try to engage an independent expert to make changes — completely independent and without your review — you’ll also get slapped.

That’s a lot of power for an organization that purports to be a collaborative product of its users. And there are a lot of problems with how that power is being wielded. Here are the details of the Microsoft incident:

Doug Mahugh, a technical expert for the Microsoft format, Office Open XML, has identified himself as the Microsoft employee who contacted Jelliffe requesting his services.

In a comment posted on the popular Slashdot technology website, Mahugh published what he said was an excerpt from an email to Jelliffe, detailing “what I asked Rick to do”.

“Wikipedia has an entry on Open XML that has a lot of slanted language, and we’d like for them to make it more objective but we feel that it would be best if a non-Microsoft person were the source of any corrections,” reads the email Mahugh apparently wrote to Jelliffe.

“Would you have any interest or availability to do some of this kind of work? Your reputation as a leading voice in the XML community would carry a lot of credibility, so your name came up in a discussion of the Wikipedia situation today.”

The email also encouraged Jelliffe to disclose his deal with Microsoft in his blog at oreillynet.com, and reassured Jelliffe that Microsoft did not have to approve any of his Wikipedia edits before they were made.

Microsoft APPEARS to have aimed at transparency, but that wasn’t good enough for Wikipedia’s power center, founder Jimmy Wales:

We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach.

Mike Arrington sums up the conventional wisdom:

It’s clear that the only way to safely clear the record on Wikipedia when you are involved party is in the discussion area of a page. Paying others to make direct changes isn’t smart, even if you tell them they are free to write their unbiased opinions (as happened in this case). And making direct changes yourself is likely to get you in hot water, too.

Tony Hung, whose opinions I respect a lot, characterizes Microsoft’s efforts as an “astroturfing blunder.” But isn’t astroturfing about trying to insert biased or slanted information? Has anyone demonstrated that this was in fact Microsoft’s intentioned? Did they really think Rick Jelliffe was going to “shill” for them and compromise his reputation by putting in something other than his expert opinion? Is it even conceivable that there was a legitimate problem with the entries in question and that Microsoft thought they would just get smacked if they tried to address it in the discussion area?

For me, I immediately felt a connection between this Microsoft incident and the “no follow” policy. It’s easy to pile on Microsoft, but it seems that it’s getting increasingly difficult to for an individual or company to manage the impact of Wikipedia — Wikipedia is becoming as manageable as Google, which is to say that there are some things you can do, but an awful lot is out of your control.

Isn’t it funny how, on our marvelously “open” web, everything always comes back to issues of control?

  • I keep thinking that all PR is good PR. Yes it was a PR black eye, but Microsoft made its point.

    Yes the rules are changing. Microsoft and any company for that matter have a real challenge on their hands when it comes to influencing the debate and defending themselves on Wikipedia or the world of new media. Where the goal is transparency, openness and honesty, payment is frowned upon, even if you are transparent, open and honest about the point of you view you represent.

    It means companies will need to work doubly hard to gain acknowledgment and acceptance of their point of view.

  • Anon for this one

    Anyone who thinks that Microsoft is either the first or the last company to recruit someone to fix their Wikipedia entry for them is smoking something.

    The company I work for had a relatively short and not very helpful Wikipedia entry. Our competitors have much longer, more detailed, and generally much better entries about themselves. I've wanted to fix our entry for a long time, but according to Wikipedia, I can't. I have to sit on my hands and wait for one of our customers to decide to commit the hours to such a project -- and let's not kid ourselves, creating a good Wikipedia entry about a technical subject is not a small project.

    Yet if I try to facilitate matters, then I'm bad and should be roundly criticized. I call bull. That's only true if you subscribe to the theory that anything a corporation does is inherently tainted and untrustworthy. The world just isn't that black and white. Companies with a legitimate interest in providing accurate information about their products should be able to do so without either sneaking around or going over hurdles that their competitors don't have.

  • Damn you, Karp :-)

  • Mathew,

    "Stupid is as stupid does."

  • I didn't say Mahugh was stupid -- the point of my post was that Microsoft looks stupid as a result of what he did.

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